Final Curtain for Vital Country Music Contributors

Aug. 4, 2009 — Billy Lee Riley, Byron Bach and Reverend Ike: The names might not have rolled off the tongues of most country fans, but all three of them contributed in some way to the genre’s landscape. Each of them passed away in the last week.

Billy Lee helped to usher in the raucous rockabilly style through Sun Records, which challenged the status quo in country music with its energetic, Southern-based sound. Byron, who played cello in the Nashville Symphony for a decade, also contributed to a significant number of hits by such Country Hall of Fame members as Johnny Cash, Roy Clark and Kris Kristofferson. The Reverend Ike was a controversial minister, but he tied his legacy to one of country’s greatest figures, Hank Williams.

Their individual stories:

• Billy Lee Riley was better known in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. for his efforts on Sam Phillips’ Memphis-based Sun label in the late 1950s. His most-successful release, the 1957 novelty record "Flyin’ Saucers Rock And Roll," was hailed as one of country’s 500 greatest singles in the Country Music Foundation book Heartaches By The Number. His Sun tenure also included studio work as a backing musician on some of his label mates’ recordings, including Jerry Lee Lewis’ "Great Balls Of Fire," Charlie Rich’s "Lonely Weekends" and Johnny Cash’s "Ways Of A Woman In Love." Billy Lee died Sunday in Jonesboro, Ark., The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported, at the age of 75.

• Byron Bach was a Kentucky-born World War II veteran who took a job as a manager at a chemical company in Nashville, where he ultimately was a founding faculty member at the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School. He died July 28, according to The Tennessean, at age 86. Among the classic recordings that drew on his talents: Kenny Rogers’ "She Believes In Me," Sammi Smith’s "Help Me Make It Through The Night," Lynn Anderson’s "Rose Garden," Kris Kristofferson’s "Why Me," Don McLean’s "Crying" and Crystal Gayle’s "When I Dream." He also had bow in hand on a number of pop hits, including Austin Roberts’ "Rocky" and Carl Carlton’s "Everlasting Love."

• Reverend Ike died July 28 in a California hospital, The Los Angeles Times reported, closing out a life in which he preached the gospel of prosperity. "The best thing you can do for the poor," he famously said, "is not be one of them." Reverend also "did" for Hank Williams Jr. — he sang one verse in Bocephus’ remake of Hank Sr.’s "Mind Your Own Business," which also featured guest vocals by Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire and Tom Petty. The song was a No. 1 country single in 1986.